Attack of the Killer Second Bananas
Everyone knows supporting roles are often more interesting than the lead part. But every now and then an actor uses their limited screen-time to overwhelm the rest of the movie. A good supporting player in the right part can push a movie star to the side and steal the spotlight for themselves. This entry from the March 2003 issue of Movieline magazine examines a few memorable scene stealers and the movies they stole.
In the fondly remembered but not especially good 1988 film Mystic Pizza, the unfortunate Annabeth Gish–and everyone else in the cast–gets completely upstaged by the then-unknown Julia Roberts. She is so much more glamorous than anyone else in the film that she stands out like a Little Sister of the Poor at a Christina Aguilera Lookalike Contest. Roberts, previously seen in Firehouse and Satisfaction, used Mystic Pizza as a launching pad to stardom.
In the fondly remembered but not especially good 1996 film Beautiful Girls, the unfortunate Annabeth Gish–and everyone else in the cast–gets completely upstaged by the belligerently cute Natalie Portman, a snow angel who periodically surfaces in this hell of a movie, which she used as a launching pad to stardom.
And in the utterly forgotten, universally ridiculed, though rarely seen 1994 film Wyatt Earp, the unfortunate Annabeth Gish–and everyone else in the cast–gets completely upstaged by the sardonic Dennis Quaid, who used the film as a launching pad to, well, other things. I’m not saying all this is a reflection on Ms. Gish’s acting ability or screen presence. But it does make you wonder why the producers of “The X-Files” thought she was the right person to save that sinking ship.
The triumph of the second, third, fourth or ninth banana in a film that clearly belongs to someone else is one of the great joys in going to the movies; what seems like just another feminist flick about pissed-off women out on a cross-country crime spree unexpectedly turns out to be the dawn of Brad Pitt’s career. Often the second banana syndrome is like a trapdoor cruelly sprung on the unsurprising star of the movie. When Antonio Banderas sauntered into The Mask of Zorro, he honestly expected that to be his film. Instead, it made a star of the unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones. When Matt Damon starred in the lush, chilling The Talented Mr. Ripley, his first big Hollywood vehicle since breaking out in Good Will Hunting, he thought he had it made. Instead, Jude Law stole the spotlight as the tanned, charismatic Dickie Greenleaf. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper honestly believed–or at least hoped–that the notoriety of Easy Rider would vault them into the Pantheon of the Immortals. Instead, it did basically nothing for either of them but made a star of Jack Nicholson. When veteran gamine Winona Ryder, who served as executive producer–whatever that means–of Girl, Interrupted, she hoped the film would finally cajole the public into taking her seriously. Instead, the pouty Angelina Jolie wins the Oscar. No wonder Winona turned to crime.
It is not our purpose here to ridicule those who have been upstaged by the less famous. It is no reflection on Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Michael Rooker, Michael Biehn, Jason Priestley and Dana Delany that they get blown completely off the screen by Val Kilmer in Tombstone, nor does it diminish Keanu Reeves’s and Jeff Daniels’s fine work in Speed that the thing most people remember about the film is the perky Sandra Bullock. It is not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fault that costar Jamie Lee Curtis and sidekick Tom Arnold stole the show in True Lies. Finally, in no way should our remarks here be construed as an attack on Ms. Gish. Capricious cruelty is not the American way. And it is certainly not the Movieline way.
No, what we seek to accomplish in these pages is simply to celebrate the rich diversity of the second banana universe in all its myriad variations. By doing so, we may succeed in “contextualizing” the very concept of upstaging, and perhaps make it abundantly clear to even the most casual film buff why second bananas are pivotal to the success of some motion pictures.
Viewed holistically, there are three basic kinds of second bananas: those who make a good film better, those who make an otherwise bad or mediocre film at the very least watchable, and those who actually wrestle the film away from the star. In the first class can be found such performances as Frank Sinatra as a doomed hotshot in From Here to Eternity, Marisa Tomei as an ethnic stereotype in My Cousin Vinny, Juliette Lewis as daft jailbait in Cape Fear and Renee Zellweger as a charming cutie pie in Jerry Maguire. Perhaps the finest recent example of this phenomenon is Jack Black’s turn as a demented record store geek in High Fidelity. In all of these instances, the second banana provides a periodic diversion away from the main action of the film, serving in effect as a human grace note, whatever that means.
Our second category consists of films that have few or in some cases no virtues other than those provided by the second banana. Beautiful Girls is a farrago of retried, mystically pizza-like tripe about a bunch of small-town losers who have never gotten over high school. Showcasing such generic Hollywood confections as the aging stud (Matt Dillon), the one that got away (Lauren Holly), the long-suffering replacement girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) and the garrulous porker with the heart of gold (Rosie O’Donnell), this sad excuse for a film only comes alive when the precocious Natalie Portman bounces onto the screen. Bubbly, sassy, charming and cute, Portman serves as a kind of cinematic bedouin who enables the parched and desperate filmgoer to traverse this Sahara of a motion picture without dying of thirst, if you catch my drift.
Our third category consists of films like The Fugitive and Tombstone where the ostensible stars of the motion pictures, whether they realize it or not, get completely upstaged by the supporting players. Before his memorable turn as the brash, cynical marshal tracking down Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Tommy Lee Jones had made a slew of movies with names like Jackson County Jail and The River Rat. Then, when he was finally handed the opportunity to run with the ball in The Fugitive, the crackling, sarcastic Jones stole the spotlight away from the earnest, plodding Harrison Ford and turned himself into a star overnight.
Breaking out from a second banana role doesn’t always guarantee career longevity, however, as evidenced by the surprise player in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. Released in 1985, Silverado was the first major western to come along in years. Starring Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Kline as enigmatic, multicultural, fundamentally virtuous cow-pokes pitted against the forces of unalloyed evil (Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum and Jeff Fahey), Silverado had a remarkable cast (it also starred Rosanna Arquette, Linda Hunt and John Cleese), a tried-and-true premise and entirely serviceable high-plains visuals. Unfortunately, it had a terrible script, no real focus and was doomed by the catastrophic decision to cast the glib, postmodern Kevin Kline as the most anachronistic cowboy ever. The only thing Silverado did have going for it was the young, studly Kevin Costner as a baby-faced gunman with a puppylike disposition and an inexhaustible appetite for violence. Costner grabbed the bull by the horns when Kasdan threw him this bone; in the twinkling of an eye, he was starring in The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. A star was born.
But then the star turned into the solemn, predictable, self-absorbed Kevin Costner. Before you knew it, Costner was getting upstaged by his second bananas. Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (though Rickman is not so much a second banana as an entire plantation of bananas–all of them overripe) and Dennis Hopper in Waterworld. And then, of course, there is Lawrence Kasdan’s bloated, lugubrious Wyatt Earp, which was the first installation in Kevin Costner’s legendary Hat Trick of Twaddle (for more details, consult Waterworld and The Postman, which is more than enough). Ponderous, interminable, hamstrung by a cliché-laden screenplay, Wyatt Earp is also stopped dead in its tracks by a clique of ineffective villains and a harem of woefully miscast femmes fatales (whose idea was it to cast Mare Winningham as a hooker?). The only good thing in the movie, the only thing the viewer can actually look forward to, is Dennis Quaid’s intermittent appearances as the sociopathic dentist-turned-gambler Doc Holliday. As opposed to everyone else in the film, who speaks in a dumb, literal, 19th-century faux-Amish patois, the courtly but brassy Quaid fires off remarks like, “My momma always told me to never put off till tomorrow people you can kill today.”
Generally, second bananas steal the show by being prodigiously evil. It was the casual way Ralph Fiennes picked off moving Jewish targets in Schindler’s List that made him a star; as opposed to fire-breathing villains like Christopher Walken, Fiennes perfectly captured the nihilism of Nazi Germany by dwelling on its dreariness and monotony rather than its sadism and depravity. For his concentration camp commander, killing Jews was not a crime against humanity but a laborious and fundamentally unsatisfying nine-to-five job. From the acting point of view, Fiennes’s understatedly satanic performance was a classic case of less is more.
One of the strangest experiences a movie lover can have is to go back and watch classic show-stealing performances now that the person who stole the show has gone on to bigger and better things. Nicholson’s performance as a dissolute southern lawyer in Easy Rider is still a revelation; he is literally telling Hollywood, “Hire me; dump Fonda.” Which is precisely what Hollywood did. And Cameron Diaz, who made her breakthrough debut in The Mask, still seems like a fresh sunrise.
In compiling this tribute, I am aware that many of the very finest second bananas have been overlooked. Rupert Everett clearly steals the show from Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, just as Matt Damon takes over Courage Under Fire and Owen Wilson upstages everybody in The Royal Tenenbaums–not an easy thing to do. In drawing attention to the great upstagers, I have tried to distinguish them from hams (Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg), wackos (Steve Buscemi, Parker Posey, Amanda Plummer) and bozos (basically anyone from “Saturday Night Live”). This list of terrific performances is by no means complete. Still, it would be a craven dereliction of my duties as a film critic if I failed to address the lingering Ciccone Controversy.
Talk to the average person about movies where the second banana steals the show and they will always mention Madonna’s screen debut as a brassy punk in Desperately Seeking Susan. Today, with such disasters as Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence, The Next Best Thing and Swept Away, no one but a few near-sighted cross-dressers in Kansas City still pretends that Madonna can act. But harking back to her memorable debut, people always wonder what might have been had the fading chantoozie chosen other projects like Desperately Seeking Susan, films that utilized her talents to best effect.
But in fact, when we go back and actually look at Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film, it is Rosanna Arquette who breathes life into the motion picture and Madonna who seems mechanical and artificial. Because Arquette’s career didn’t really go anywhere, both the public and the critics tend to misremember this film as a case where the star got the spotlight stolen right out from under her by a supporting player. Not true. It is Arquette who dominates the film with her sweet, innocent, ditzy persona, and Madonna who comes off as the second fiddle. Moreover, she comes off as a hopeless amateur–wooden, reflexively innocent, over-rehearsed, predictable, trashy–chewing gum and sneering to camouflage the fact that she cannot act. In retrospect, knowing what we now know about the star of the lifeless Evita and the moronic Shanghai Surprise, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan was the classic overpraised dancing bear, the circus animal lauded not for its ability to dance well, but for its ability to dance at all. In short, Rosanna Arquette has been the victim of one of the greatest miscarriages of critical justice in history.
I never thought I would live to say those words.